The opening line of my review for Aladdin less than two months ago read “It is becoming increasingly tedious to both critique and enjoy these Disney “re-imaginings.” That hasn’t changed. Go back two months before that with Dumbo and I said “Audiences constantly question the values of duplicated enjoyment or tangible purpose for needing anything new and shiny made from something that worked just that way it was intended decades ago.” That hasn’t changed either. Now, when I go back two years to Beauty and the Beast and read my words of “Let them be different, whether that’s better or worse, because they are different. View them separately and independently. Judge them separately and independently,” I see where the situations have changed for me and for this line of movies. I can’t do that anymore.
Jon Favreau’s The Lion King stands as the biggest test to all of that progress and the attached criticism because of how little beyond the pristinely pixelated exterior is actually “reimagined.” So incredibly and, dare I say, unnecessarily much is nearly a shot-for-shot duplication of Disney’s most popular and most successful film of their Renaissance era. To go back to Dumbo, duplicated enjoyment may have been the goal, but that makes one question a tangible purpose for truly needing any such update. Luckily, the shininess, so to speak, is an undeniably impressive redeeming feature to a lack of implemented originality.
With around thirty minutes of extra marination here and there simplified by screenwriter and former steady Brett Ratner and Steven Spielberg collaborator Jeff Nathanson, the well-worn tale of The Lion King, with all of its hefty Shakespearean elements, is retold for a new generation. The habitat-sustaining balance of predator and prey on Pride Rock and the coming-of-age journey of an impatient young lion cub named Simba are derailed by the tragic death of his kingly father Mufasa (James Earl Jones). The pourer of snake oil and the engineer of this tragic royal coup is Mufasa’s rebuffed and cerebral younger brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his enlisted army of hyenas. Shamed to believing his idolized father’s death was his fault, Simba leaves the savanna and grows into an adult (Donald Glover) in a lush jungle far away under the practical tutelage and scrappy friendship of a meerkat named Timon (Billy Eichner) and a warthog named Pumba (Seth Rogen). When his former betrothed lioness (Beyonce Knowles-Carter) and a spiritual soothsaying baboon (John Kani) from his past discover Simba is alive, they urge him to return home and claim his birthright.
Depending on your chosen educator in the movie, Timon or Mufasa, you either have a straight line (food chain) or a grander circle (food web) to describe linked survival. It’s like the duel between facts and “fake news” only sung as an anthem to help you remember. Everything that lives will die and become the ingredients of a future living thing. We all are the products of that matter ourselves. It’s just what order you observe or place you occupy in the chain or the web.
Just as in 1994, the catchy “Hakuna Matata” comprises your specially packaged teachable nugget for the target demographic. The Swahili phrase meaning “no trouble” or “no problems” remains good advice for moving on from past mistakes and perceived failures with an attitude change to focus on the present and future.
It is the present entertainment landscape and the future dividends that have powered this 2019 presentation to an immense level of anticipation. There is no disputing this movie’s immediate and constant wow factor as a stunning visual and technical spectacle. The photo-real animation of The Moving Picture Company supervised by three-time Oscar winner Robert Legato, fellow Jungle Book Oscar winner Adam Valdez, and promoted top supervisor Elliot Newman add divine, ethereal layers and qualities to every corner of Caleb Deschanel’s laboratory cinematography, right down to the wind, bugs, hair, and dust. The conjured natural beauty and animal physicality are easily some of the best-looking CGI work Disney has ever attempted of film.
The trade-off with the hyper-detailed realism is the loss of engaging and exaggerated personification of characters and performances from traditional hand-drawn animation. This happened for The Jungle Book as well. Nearly all of the expressive eyes, mouths, and other emotional facial features are flattened and reduced by limits of physiological accuracy. Cartoons, more often than not, will always do that better. It shows here and it is showmanship that is dearly missed.
Stellar voice work would supersede that weakness. However, this update lacks a standout showy performance, even with a “let’s do this” and “I got this” modern attitude sprinkled throughout the diverse casting. Now 88, the returning Jones has lost little timbre but counts as another ingredient of replication rather than an opportunity for newness. Ejiofor is a less oily Scar than Jeremy Irons, and his calculated line deliveries of sinister intent and ruthless edge are underplayed and too calm to a degree. Glover and Knowles feel like they are reading more than emoting and hitting high drama. The most zeal, naturally, comes from the characters with the most personality — the chicanery of Eichner and Rogen charms to embezzle each episode of their participation.
What gave 1994’s The Lion King its lasting importance is the trait of majesty. In my eyes, that always came from the music as much as, if not more than, the characters themselves. The songs composed by the famed Elton John with lyrics by Disney hitmaker Tim Rice brought magnetic appeal. Hans Zimmer’s percussive and choral musical score, which stands as his only Oscar-winning work to date, elevated the entire movie’s powerful presence for show-stopping impact. That memorable music, recomposed and reworked by all three men with the infusion and addition of Beyonce, is the smartest and, in the end, the most essential anchoring element of this carryover. That vital strength is successfully retained rather than lost. Now, the musical majesty has a matching and radiant visual one primed to stir both new and old amazement.
Lastly, the generosity of a ruler’s wisdom and actions gain more fealty among their subjects than any fear or oppressive control. Mufasa and Simba earned that loyalty. The other animals in their organic orb of influence genuflect in respect. Can the same effect be evoked from the watching audiences of Jon Favreau’s new achievement as they gain or lose trust in Disney’s reputation with these second comings? The regal resonance of this parable wins. No matter if the version of The Lion King being shown is sketched or coded, we too may bow to the grand splendor on display.